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D.C. food truck owners steamed over proposed parking rules

By and Candace Wheeler,

The language in question from the District’s proposed vending regulations sounds innocuous enough: Food trucks may not vend from a parking spot adjacent to an “unobstructed sidewalk” that is “less than ten feet (10 ft.) wide in the Central Business District.”

But since the publication of the proposed regulations in October, members of the D.C. Food Truck Association have been trying to determine what those words could mean for their businesses. And what they’ve learned has unnerved them: Eight of the 10 most popular food truck destinations downtown do not technically comply with the proposed rule as written, according to research done by the association.

When food truck owners met in October with officials from the District Department of Transportation, they were assured that the District had no intention of prohibiting the vendors from working at such popular sites as Farragut Square, Franklin Square and Union Station.

Matthew Marcou, deputy associate director of the DDOT’s Public Space Regulation Administration, and Alice Kelly, manager of its policy branch, told vendors that DDOT could waive the rules to create special mobile vending locations, which would allow trucks to sell food for four straight hours on weekdays. Currently, trucks must move after one to two hours, when the parking meter expires.

Marcou said that it was “his objective” to establish such mobile vending areas at Farragut Square, Franklin Square and other areas frequented by food trucks.

Owners of food trucks said they are put off by a still-
unknown process that relies on the kindness of bureaucrats to keep their businesses alive. “I think the question is, why would you put forward regulations that are only successful when you make an exception to the rule?” asked Che Ruddell-Tabisola, executive director of the D.C. Food Truck Association and co-owner of the BBQ Bus.

Hundreds of office workers, pedestrians and tourists lined up Friday at food trucks parked around Farragut Square — “Farragut Friday” — for pizza, Korean tacos, barbecue and cupcakes.

“I don’t understand the logic behind the regulation,” said Michael Wrobel, who works as a government consultant near Farragut Square. “The trucks are disrupting anyone’s ability to get to where they are going.” It was only Wrobel’s second time at Farragut Friday, but he said he would consider following the trucks if they had to move as long as it wasn’t too far beyond the five blocks he already had to walk from his office.

Over the past month, the association measured the sidewalks and catalogued the physical obstacles at 10 of the most popular food truck sites — Capitol South, Chinatown, L’Enfant Plaza, Union Station, Franklin Square, Farragut Square, L Street NW, Metro Center, George Washington University and Virginia Avenue NW.

Its conclusion: Only Metro Center and L Street NW have sidewalks with 10 feet of unobstructed space.

Food truck owners, Ruddell-Tabisola said, should not have to rely on the good intentions of public officials to determine their future in the District. “Policy needs to be clear,” he said. “I would only trust what I would see in the regulations. . . . You can’t make policy based on what people’s good intentions are.”

The association, which has more than 50 members, plans to submit ideas and comments on the regulations. The group is already asking food trucks’ supporters to petition Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to rewrite the rules.

At their meeting with food truck operators, D.C. officials said they were open to altering the proposed regulations to clarify any murky language and unspecific processes. The regulations, they noted, are proposed, not final. Any finalized regulations require the approval of the D.C. Council.

The city is still accepting comments on the regulations from the public. They are due by 5 p.m. Tuesday and should be sent to Helder Gil, Legislative Affairs Specialist, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 1100 Fourth St. SW, Room 5164, Washington, D.C. 20024, or to DCVendingRegs@dc.gov.

At Farragut Square on Friday, Layla Lynn — known to her co-workers as the “food truck queen” — said it was hard to imagine the scene without the mobile eateries. She gets her lunch from a food truck three or four times a week.

“It’s totally unfair for the city to propose regulations that would stop these trucks from operating,” she said. “It’s great for these business owners to establish a clientele without the overhead of a brick-and-mortar location, and it lets people like me have mobile diversity in food options.”

As much as she wants her favorite food trucks to remain at Farragut Square, she tracks trucks’ locations through foodtruckfiesta.com — and she’ll follow them, if need be.

“We’ve been following the tater tot truck for a few months,” said Michelle Hailey, a co-worker of Lynn’s. “Now we eat lunch together almost every day. The food truck and the tater tots were really the catalyst for that,” she said.

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